Last Saturday at a party I saw many people I hadn’t seen since I stopped my daily wine habit earlier this year. Some people said straight out: “Man, you’ve lost weight!” or “Isn’t your husband feeding you anymore?” or “Wow, you look great!” (my personal fave, cutting to the chase). Others just kind of looked me up and down, clearly noticing the change. I was never really that overweight, but for sure I was borderline; what they saw then but is gone now is mostly the bloated, puffed-out face and figure of a highly-functioning alcoholic which I dragged around for years.
When I drank I was in denial about many things, but one that continues to surprise me is how I could block out just how many calories and sugar are in an average bottle of wine. Add savory, salty, cheesy snacks ON TOP OF DINNER AND ALL THAT WINE on any given night, so yes of course it’s no wonder I looked like the Michelin Man.
While I am more than happy to be rid of the accompanying physical bloat of alcohol addiction, the release of the weight of anxiety means more to me than any compliment I may receive on my appearance. Because I have quit drinking I am better able to handle conflict, awkward situations, and challenges. The daily intake of alcohol made my situation much worse – not better.
Today, instead of fighting my usual wine craving while driving home from work, I was preoccupied with some ideas I have about writing and working on my illustrations. This is new. I am still stunned that this happened; the first day in four months while driving home from work that I did not have to excruciatingly self-talk my way through a wine craving.
The happiness I feel now during what is pretty much an uneventful day is strange. Most things in my world remain unchanged. I still have the same job, my bills haven’t disappeared, I still struggle with producing creative work consistently, and we still have the same president (that I still can’t believe ever got to the White House). Yes, the month of June is helping with the lush green leaves and clear cobalt skies, mild temperatures, and my daughter back from her first year at college. The reasons to feel good are many, but none of these things would be as great if I was still checking out every night with my bottle of wine.
I “celebrated” by sitting down for longer than usual at the dinner table, sipping my sparkling water, my daughter leading the conversation. I wasn’t uptight about the messy house (dorm room stuff currently takes over the living room), the weeds in my garden, or the unfinished draft of the proposal I owe my boss tomorrow morning.
The normal rhythms and routines of life used to drive me to drink, goaded on by the ever-present Wine Witch twisting my thinking: you have me, you needn’t face those things. Now that alcohol is out of my system, I move through the day evenly with less anxiety. I am more patient with myself and others. Most of all, I now see the time that I used to drink as time that can be used for so many other, better, meaningful things.
I don’t expect tomorrow to be the same, but I am grateful for the hope today gives me.
When I drank I used throw out sarcastic, cynical quips into the conversation whenever I could. My idea of humor was always on the dark side, not just a little dark, but often downright off the wall. To begin to understand where this comes from entails looking at the people I’ve hung out with and the places I’ve been. My family, too, have a big influence still – for the most part my siblings have negativity and cynicism in SPADES. When I drank the worst aspects of these influences came out. The saddest thing is that I thought I was being funny. Not so much.
I know a woman, “Joanie” who is fits the Pollyanna profile to a ‘T’. Even in the face of adversity, she responds with a cheerleader’s exuberance. Just lost your entire novel because your computer crashed? “Just start over!” Your kid just broke his leg skiing? “It will heal!” Your SO just got laid off? “There are plenty of other jobs out there!” Etc. etc. When I drank I had a hard time accepting that people like her could exude such positiveness in the face of life’s suckiest moments. I would wince, look on incredulously, and then likely throw in some sort of negative comment.
When I drank every day I tried to deny that I wanted to be happy like Joanie. In fact, I thought it was way cooler to be circumspect, questioning, skeptical, or cynical – in other words, miserable.
I will never pretend that things are great when they’re not, but now that I no longer block out my natural inclination for real happiness with drink, my days are better. My outlook is sunnier. Now, instead of opening a bottle of wine every night after work to try to erase the day, I make myself a pot of Japanese green tea and read something positive and inspirational. My early evening cravings diminish, along with my negativity.
Now that I am sober I understand that this is Joanie’s MO, her way of getting by, getting through life. The giant smiley-face sticker on the back of her Jeep tells people who she is, and how she wants you to be too.
I did it. I lasted the long weekend without letting drink interfere with my sobriety goals. And, I socialized. I went to a baseball game and a barbecue. I walked through the neighborhood filled with the sounds of little kids playing, adults laughing (and drinking), and teenagers driving fast with music blaring from their car windows (don’t tell me they were sober).
Was it hard to not drink my usual glass of crisp white wine so I could feel a part of all the other people celebrating the start of summer? Did I find myself looking longingly at my friend’s glass as she took sip after sip of her drink? Did the smell of the spilled beer on the patio make me think of days past when my summers were spent at kegs and outdoor festivals? Yes, yes, and yes. Did I miss being hungover and unproductive this morning as I watched the neighborhood slowly come to life, sat and wrote, sketched out a story idea, and threw in a load of laundry? No, no, and no.
The discomfort of being sober while everyone around me is drinking cannot be ignored. I walked through it by accepting the feeling. Yes, it was hard. I wanted to drink along with everyone else. What guided me through the cravings were these incentives:
Sleeping continuously through the night, waking refreshed
Getting up and feeling ready for the day, which now seems filled with possibility…there are not enough hours to do what I want to accomplish!
Having more honest conversations with people – at home, at work, socially
Anxiety, restlessness, and depression are not gone entirely, but they are mere shadows compared to when I drank every day
Slimmer figure, better skin, clearer eyes, more energy!
Improved endurance, whether mentally (writing, painting) or physically (at the gym, house chores)
Keeping these incentives top of mind is one critical component of my sobriety toolkit. What are your incentives to stay away from drink when the discomfort and cravings kick in?
Much to my surprise, people, I am a MORNING PERSON. Now that I sleep better all the way through the night, I wake up feeling great. You know those pharmaceutical commercials where they show the actor smiling, leaping out of bed after a night where said effects of the drug clearly worked? The dramatic sweep of the fresh sheets, usually some sort of cute puppy bouncing around, and the incredibly bright, sunny rays glowing all around? That’s not me exactly, but close. When I compare to how I used to lay there and dread the day before me after a night of restless, stiff, head-achy “sleep,” now I wake up with a clear head, muscles that want to move, and I am eager to get going on my day.
I am still going to the same job for which I am overqualified and don’t love, but my attitude has changed towards it, and I deal with the ups and downs in a different way. When I chose this job I was still governed by the negative effects and underlying causes of my addiction. Too lazy and foggy to do the work to find a better match, and lacking in the confidence to seek out a more challenging role.
The good thing is while the work itself requires minimal brain power, I can use what’s left over to work on recovery. This means writing in the mornings very early before anyone else (including the cats) are up, and also during lunchtime, as my employer provides plenty of private spaces for employees, and I can do this without interruption. I am grateful for the physical and mental space to start writing again.
Early mornings also mean eating better, wearing clothes that actually look somewhat thought-out, and avoiding the worst of rush hour. Some days I even find a decent podcast or audiobook to play for inspiration or laughs, while I drink my coffee and get in the mindset for a busy day.
This is a huge contrast to when I would drag myself out the door in a bad mood, often emotional and always anxious, working through a hangover. One of the strongest incentives to stay away from my old routine of nightly drinking is to visualize me getting up fresh-faced and ready for the day, vs. the sad, bloated, and irritable person I once was. Not going back there.
What’s your favorite part of the day now that you are sober?
When I drank, every weekday morning was a test. Do I run through the McDonald’s drive thru, grab a sausage biscuit, and mindlessly devour it while dealing with rush hour traffic? Or, do I wait until I get to work, find the granola bar I know is somewhere, and hope that someone brought donuts? These two scenarios show my typical breakfast habitswhile dealing with my mild hangovers. Along with the bottle of wine I consumed every night, no wonder I was about 20 lbs overweight, and had regular bouts of blemishes on my otherwise good skin.
The combination of the hangover effects and the greasy or random breakfast made me tired, slow, and irritable. I barely looked people in the eyes, and I avoided conversation. If I had a meeting early in the day I always sat at the back or on the edge of the group and didn’t participate unless I absolutely had to. Coffee and water kept me going until lunchtime, which often meant another quick trip to the most convenient place I could find. I went for the limp, tasteless gas station sandwiches along with salty bags of chips, or yet more fattening, highly-processed food served through a different drive-thru window. Very rarely would I bring my lunch from home.
Because I was still metabolizing all that wine consumed only hours before, I was way too tired and disorganized in the mornings to think about healthy eating habits and do the work involved to maintain them. It was hard enough to get myself to the shower, find clothes that looked halfway decent, and make a pot of coffee. When I think back (and it really was not long ago) I wonder how in the hell did I make it to work and somehow get by, despite how I was abusing myself? Drinking at night, never getting enough continuous sleep, and then right away in the mornings having way too much sugar, fat, and salt, not to mention being in a state of constant dehydration?
No wonder I was constantly anxious, dissatisfied, irritable, and moody at work. It doesn’t take the brightest bulb in the room to figure out that alcohol was the cause of my poor eating habits and resulting unhealthy physical and mental state – for years.
Now, I am waking up at 5:30 a.m. I have a clear head after at least six or seven hours of straight, uninterrupted sleep. I get ready, make my homemade healthy breakfast and lunch, and sit down to write as long as I can before I head out for my 20-minute commute. I feel better, I look better, and I avoid the drive-thru windows.
I am not saying I never eat fast food anymore, but the cravings for it are pretty much gone now that I’ve stopped drinking. How have your eating habits changed since you’ve become sober?
Ah, the Greeks knew it all, didn’t they? This concept is an ancient idea, but why is it only now when I am sober that it comes to me like a brand new idea? Without health, is it possible to
Make the connection between mind, body, and spirit while draining a bottle of crisp New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc every night, cruising through inane and embarrassing posts on my Facebook feed?
Listen to what my body is telling me while my subconscious brain swims in a fog controlled by the defeating patterns of addiction?
Look squarely in the mirror each morning after drinking and see the reflection for what it is, instead of fooling myself that “I don’t really look like that?”
Go to the gym and walk on a treadmill at a steady pace three times a week, make a stop to the liquor store immediately afterwards, and call that a workout regimen?
The answer to all of these, of course, is one big emphatic no.
For years my modus operandi centered on my ability to drink wine every day. After work, chores, my daughter’s activities, obligatory family events, or anything where alcohol was not present, my number one priority was to get back to it as fast as I could. I had a mental image of what wine was at home. Maybe a bit left in the bottle from the night before, already cold and waiting (rare). Maybe most of a bottle cold and waiting, the second one I opened from the night before (common). A warm one still in the wine rack? No problem. There was a special place carved out in the freezer just for such emergencies. I had a favorite (large) wine glass. I even knew if it was in the dishwasher, or in the cupboard ready to pulled and used for that first, lovely crisp swig.
Between doing obligatory things and drinking, I avoided mirrors and eye contact, I scoffed at slim joggers and yoga mat-carrying thirtysomethings, and often ate huge bowls of macaroni and cheese or plates of Pizza Rolls at 11:30 p.m., somehow with the idea that it all seemed perfectly reasonable to have a second dinner before crashing.
Denying my drinking problem and ignoring my health went on for years. Years. When I look back now I realize it could have been much worse, but everyone’s experience is relevant and real, no matter how you define “rock bottom.”
I am still very new at sobriety. I have started to work with a personal trainer and I don’t eat mac and cheese or other bad food only eaten when drunk. I have lost ten pounds. I am learning to meditate. I cannot get my hands on enough “Quit Lit” and Peanut M&Ms. Green tea is my new drink of choice. I have eye contact with people at work. I am writing more, painting more, and often seeing trees and the grass as though for the first time.
Tomorrow, however, could look very different. Every day I wake up sober with clear eyes and a fresh mind, I am learning to respect both the strength and fragility of this new way of being.